What’s In It for Us?

Dominoes are falling in the Middle East. They’re just not the right dominoes.

If the United States still had a great-power rival, it would be hard to count the revolutionary tide sweeping the Middle East and North Africa as anything other than a disaster. Of the governments that have so far been toppled or placed in jeopardy this year, most have had pretty fair relations with the U.S.

Three of them—Egypt, Bahrain, and Jordan—are designated “major non-NATO allies” by the U.S. government. Yemen and Tunisia have been strategic partners in the struggle against terrorism. Even chronically unstable Algeria has improved its standing with the United States in the past decade. The American-midwifed government of Iraq is beginning to experience some stirrings of popular protest. Of the governments that are to some degree hostile, Iran saw a large demonstration on Monday that was quickly put down, while Syria has been notable mainly for its placidity. In Lebanon, a power grab by Hezbollah that was not related to the larger movement was a loss for American interests—and almost certainly for Lebanon itself.

For international freedom and self-determination, the people power movement seems to be a clear blessing. It is neither Shiite nor Sunni. It is not entirely Arab. And it has so far been remarkably short on rabid Islamist coloration. But statecraft is not about doing the right thing. It’s about advancing national interests. And on that score, 2011 has delivered, at best, a mixed bag for the United States.

This may be a temporary setback. The kind of national friendship that needs to be backed up by autocratic rule is probably not worth having. But not all the bad governments in the Middle East are American assets. Barring a renewed uprising that could seriously threaten Iran’s unelected madcap Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when will the popular firestorm start burning up some of the rotten rulers who are also rotten anti-American rulers?

It may take a while. Even at this late date, anti-Americanism still tends to come bundled with a package of illiberal and anti-Democratic tendencies. These tendencies are out of fashion at the moment, but they retain their force. In a concise look at Syria’s weak people power, the writer Katherine Zoepf describes how a government can still hold its position through Hobbesian menace and the kind of iron fist that recently ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could only envy:

Syrians are, generally speaking, far more fearful of their government than their Egyptian counterparts, and they have reason to be: they still live under an emergency law, enacted in 1963 and justified by Syria’s ongoing state of war with Israel, that suspends their constitutional rights. The Muslim Brotherhood, illegal but essentially tolerated in Egypt, has in Syria been effectively hounded out of existence. In Syria, membership in the brotherhood has, since 1980, been a capital offense.

I still remember how astonished I was when, visiting Egypt for the first time in the spring of 2005, I was taken to a meeting of Kefaya, a loose coalition of political groups opposing Hosni Mubarak’s presidency. The meeting, held in a large hall in the journalist’s union building in central Cairo, had attracted hundreds from across the political spectrum. I’d been living in Syria for nearly a year at that point, and I was already habituated enough to Syrian norms to be awestruck at the sight of these Egyptian activists, arguing and networking with one another in the lobby, swapping business cards and handing out pamphlets. Such a meeting would have been literally unimaginable in Syria, where all dissent is ruthlessly, and immediately, crushed…

Syria’s leadership has been able to maintain this choke-hold on its people in part, because Syrians also fear their own diversity. While close to 90% of Egyptians are Sunnis, Syria has large Christian, Shia, Alawite and Kurdish populations. These ethnic minorities fear what could replace Bashar al-Assad’s government and, after the arrival of an estimated 1.3 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, they know all too well the kind of chaos these divisions can give rise to.

In other words, if you’re placing a bet, expect that in the Middle East revolution, Syria will finish up—as it always does—in last place. With all due respect to the anti-authoritarian powers of Facebook and Twitter (and I don’t think a lot of respect is due, as demonstrated by Syria’s simultaneous decisions to loosen restrictions on social networks and imprison a high school blogger), brute force is still the ultimate power in the universe. That’s why they call it brute force.

But the Levantine diversity Zoepf describes—in which everybody hates everybody else—can work both ways. In Syria it allows the Assad family to hold power for eternity despite belonging to a tiny, despised religious sect and engaging in family high-jinx worthy of the cheapest telenovela. But in Lebanon it prevents monopoly power so effectively that even Hezbollah, in its moment of triumph, has to tread carefully. There’s still a very slim chance that new Prime Minister Najib al-Mikati will decline to throw out the United Nations tribunal investigating Rafiq Hariri’s murder—the very job for which Hezbollah had him installed. 

In a popular Los Angeles Times op-ed, pan-galactic hawk John Bolton sees the low-key chaos in Lebanon, which he considers more important than the toppling of the government in Egypt, as a referendum on American resolve, declaring, “History will rightly blame the West for the tragedy of the takeover in Beirut.” Bolton carefully elides practical details: He blames the West for failing to “follow through” after Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah, without noting that Ehud Olmert utterly failed to defeat Hezbollah in that war—a point on which last year’s Wikileaks cable dump found Americans, Syrians, Lebanese, and Israelis in rare and solid agreement. “This is our last opportunity,” Bolton writes, “before Hezbollah's armed capabilities swallow democracy in Lebanon, perhaps permanently, and dramatically increase the risk of renewed hostilities throughout the region.”

Lebanon does provide many lessons for this moment, and as is proper for the Middle East, they are completely ambiguous. The 2005-2006 people power uprising that seized Beirut after Hariri’s assassination was, as a percentage of Lebanon’s population, larger and more notable than anything that has happened in Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia, or anywhere else this year. And in the end, it’s not clear what effect it had. Ditto the invasion of Iraq, the oil spike, the global recession, skyrocketing food prices, massive deficits, the pan-Shiite threat, the waning appeal of Wahhabist extremism, and any other single-point explanation you can name.

Because what matters is that the United States does not have a great-power rival in the Middle East, yet our foreign policy continues to operate as if it does. So America finds itself in the middle of a great party, but only able to fret about how it will get to work the next day. You have to imagine an outcome where all the bad guys remain in place, all the “good” guys end up getting ousted, and it’s still a change for the better. Right now, that’s a leap the Obama Administration doesn’t seem able to make.

Tim Cavanaugh is a senior editor at Reason magazine.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • The Truth||

    It's simple--the American Empire is in decline and falling, and its Imperial Satellites are breaking off one-by-one--just like Eastern Europe did with the Soviet Union in 1989.

    I know this will be hard for certain groups of people to accept, who will no doubt issue howls of denial and American Exceptionalism.

  • CaptainSmartass||

    A random coworker mentioned in an email last night something about our "declining empire". When the average Joe on the street recognizes this, it's no longer an earth-shattering revelation.

    The American Empire is over. Time to adjust to what comes next.

  • Rock Action ||

    When the average Joe/Jolene with a B.A. from a four-year college mentions this in a random e-mail, it means he or she didn't drop out on the first day of school.

  • sevo||

    The Truth|2.17.11 @ 4:37PM|#
    "It's simple--the American Empire is in decline and falling,.."

    Shut up and sit down, jackass.

  • Hello, truth||

    Confess to being an anti-vaxxer and we will know you are for real.

  • Jess Asken||

    What’s In It for Us?

    Are we a domino?

  • ||

    Libertarians have been saying the US should disengage fro Middle Eastern politics for, like, ever.

    The oil is going to flow regardless. Dictators and revolutionaries both need the cash.

  • Griffin3||

    Of course they are allies of the United States. Who else is hanging out the public tit, to the tune of millions (billyuns) of dollars? Russia?

  • rather||

    "Of the governments that have so far been toppled or placed in jeopardy this year, most have had pretty fair relations with the U.S."

    The US gives $25 billion+ in foreign aid per year. I guess you can define money in exchange for friendship but it is a transferable guarantee.

  • ||

    If there were only someplace the Allah-Nuts and the Christ-Nuts could square off and kill each respective entire population off.

    Then the Enlightenment could resume.

  • Gregory Smith||

    What does North Korea, Communist China, Vietnam, Cuba, and the former USSR have in common? State-sponsored Atheism.

    So while I agree with you about the Allah-Nuts, it's ridiculous to suggest that secularists are any better.

    JUSTIN BIEBER BUSTED BY THE VIEW FOR BEING PRO-LIFE
    http://libertarians4freedom.blogspot.com/

  • ||

    Sorry, but stripping Communism down to "State-sponsored atheism" is pretty absurd. Atheism is not the driving force of Communist policy, unlike religion is for the Middle East and the U.S.

  • sevo||

    2crudedudes|2.17.11 @ 5:56PM|#
    "Sorry, but stripping Communism down to "State-sponsored atheism" is pretty absurd...."

    It's beyond absurd; the state is intended to take the place of the former deity.
    It's not "atheistic"; it's a 'new religion', like eco-whackos.

  • K S||

    You are right, communism isn't all about atheism. But it does prove that even if you remove religion, people will still find something to worship and kill people over. But I guess that doesn't fit into your world view, so feel free to ignore it in your pursuit to malign anyone different from you, only proving my point.

  • ed||

    Communism is not about removing relgiion. Communism IS a religion. It's every bit faith-based as any religion. It has no proof to back up it's claims, just like religion.

  • GMT II||

    MY NRA handler told me that religion does not kill people.....people kill people. Now were is my SIG 228 and my box of Cracker Jacks.

  • ||

    You been to the U.S. lately? I'd assume not.

  • Gregory Smith||

    A basic tenet of Marxism is that religion is the opiate of the masses. Religion was persecuted in the Soviet Union, Jews and others had to pray in secret. Even today you'll find that in countries like China you have to register your church with the government and they keep you under a very tight leash.

    So yes, Communism is Atheistic because the only God they want you to worship is the State. Or do you not remember the old games they used to play with kids? Like telling kids to ask God for candy which resulted in no candy, and then having the kids ask "comrade Stalin, will you give us candy" and suddenly candy would be falling from the ceiling.

    No smokers need apply: Why you should care even if you don't smoke.
    http://libertarians4freedom.bl.....hould.html

  • B||

    You saw "Europa, Europa" too?

  • Gregory Smith||

    I did, and I also read about it. Why? Are you a holocaust denier?

  • ||

    FYI, I call them Christfags and Allahf-... er, actually, I'm too big a pussy to talk shit about Muslims.

  • ||

    I don't hear Muhammad-fags run around telling each other how they "love" their fantasy guy like Jesus-fags do.

    Maybe if I went to Iraq I would hear such given their new George W. Bush sponsored theocracy?

    Nahhh! Bad idea.

    I live in Georgia - I see the GOP conservative Wahhabi Christians all the time.

    Bible = Koran - same shit but different title.

    Is that clear enough?

  • sevo||

    shrike|2.17.11 @ 6:04PM|#
    "I don't hear Muhammad-fags run around telling each other how they "love" their fantasy guy like Jesus-fags do."

    That's because stupid shits like you can't hear.

  • Hello, shiek ||

    You, of course on the side of the Mohammed dik sukkers.

  • ||

    I find this article amusing. What's in it for us? What did we do to help them? Oh yeah, nothing. In fact, we were helping them get oppressed.

  • Irresponsible Hater||

    I love that video.

    "Yeah, and ye shall know thine enemy by his raiment of sports jackets over dark vests."

  • Ken||

    Sorry for the thread-jack, but is it possible: Ron Paul, anti-Semite?!

  • Gray Ghost||

    Considering the linked article is calling Paul an anti-Semite because he dared propose a bill amendment which would end all aid to Israel, I'm going to answer, 'No, he's not an Anti-Semite'. Indifference to or dislike of Israel does not equal Antisemitism. It's nothing personal to Israel; I doubt Ron Paul approves of foreign aid for anyone.

    And thanks for linking to that article. I now know to add David Horowitz to my list of authors, whose works I can shitcan w/o reading. Saves time.

    I particularly enjoyed his quote, "The aid they receive is used to buy military equipment from U.S. companies so the money comes back to us." Oh, well, that's O.K. then. The aid must of come from the Aid Fairy. Nice to see that conservatives can completely butcher Econ 101 too.

  • sevo||

    Ken|2.17.11 @ 6:32PM|#
    "Sorry for the thread-jack, but is it possible: Ron Paul, anti-Semite?!"

    Guess you missed it. Rand Paul was labeled the same, since he called for an end to foreign aid INCLUDING (horrors) aid to Israel.
    http://reason.com/blog/2011/01.....d-to-israe

  • Red Red Whine||

    The Middle East is sick of living under the boot of the Autocrats. Can they transition to workable democracies? Who knows? I suspect that when the dust has settled, we'll have a mixed bag. A few democracies, a few theocracies and a few despots. I'm fine with not interfering and I'm also fine with not providing them with one damn penny in aid.

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  • ||

    Ha ha. Giving cover as it always has to the defense industry, and prone to brainlessly echo the usual sick fantasies of American exceptionalism, the normally energetic glibertarian commentariat today falls silent, sanguine at the prospect of US hegemony actually falling apart one puppet Arab regime at a time.

    No surprise at the silence; the pickings for self-serving jingoistic fantasies are slim indeed these days. Scrambling and desperate for thought leadership, a Reason scribbler has settled on war criminal chicken-hawk John Bolton, whose bloody, reliably wrong utterances are presented as if they were those of an accomplished diplomat instead of a violent oaf.

    Ha ha.

  • Esteban||

    Reading comprehension isn't your thing is it? It's ok, not everybody is special.

  • Paul||

    In other words, if you’re placing a bet, expect that in the Middle East revolution, Syria will finish up—as it always does—in last place. With all due respect to the anti-authoritarian powers of Facebook and Twitter (and I don’t think a lot of respect is due, as demonstrated by Syria’s simultaneous decisions to loosen restrictions on social networks and imprison a high school blogger), brute force is still the ultimate power in the universe. That’s why they call it brute force.

    This is a brilliant paragraph. Great article, Tim.

  • ||

    Ha ha. That paragraph sucked extra hard in an article filled with suck.

    Social media was the tool that leveraged Mubarak and Ben Ali out, nearly pried Ahmadinajad out, and is doing it all over again in Bahrain. Social media is nowhere near done focusing the power of societies to shove aside authoritarian regimes. Harrumphing about how little importance it has is the exact opposite of brilliant.

    What's more, given how much evidence has piled up to the contrary, to fetishize brute force as somehow insurmountable is pathetic and laughable. I realize this dumb idea plays well to sociopathic libertarian boobs who have a problem understanding societies exist, but it's just not supportable when massive crowds of nonviolent protesters are cashiering the US empire around your ears.

  • Esteban||

    What is your example for brute force not working?

  • ||

    What is your example for brute force not working?

    Well, the first and most profound example I can think of is the fact that world history has failed in its brute force campaign to penetrate your thick skull.

    Try: Egypt '11, Tunisia '11, Lebanon '05, Ukraine '04, Liberia '03, East Germany '89, Czechoslovakia '89, Lithuania '87, Philippines '86, Poland '80, US South '55-'68, India '42 and '20, Palestine '19, Ireland '19-'21, New Zealand 1879...

    Need more examples? Trust me, they're coming.

    Ha ha.

  • Esteban||

    Where was the Army cracking down on Protesters in Egypt or Tunisia, killing amss numbers of people?

  • Barney The Frank||

    Barney loves YA!

  • Paul||

    I think if you ended each post with 'LOL' instead of 'Ha ha', it would suit your level of intellect better.

    Brute force works in China, Iran, Syria,(pre U.S. Invasion) Afghanistan -- just some examples off the top of my head.

    We'll see what happens in Saudi and Libya.

  • Paul||

    North Korea...

  • Asmaa Mahfouz||

    There is dignity and honor in it if we are willing to take it. Four Egyptians have set themselves on fire, to protest humiliation and hunger and poverty...
    ...and degradation they had to live with for 30 years
    Four Egyptians have set themselves on fire, thinking maybe we can have a revolution like Tunisia...
    ...maybe we can have freedom, justice, honor, and human dignity.
    Today, one of these four has died, and I saw people commenting and saying:
    "May God forgive him, he committed a sin, and killed himself for nothing"
    People! Have some shame!
    I posted that I, a girl, am going down to Tahrir square and I will stand alone
    ...and I'll hold up a banner, perhaps people will show some honor
    I even wrote my number, so maybe people will come down with me
    No one came except three guys!
    Three guys, and three armored cars of riot police!
    And tens of hired thugs, and officers, came to terrorize us
    They shoved us roughly away from the people
    But a s soon as we were alone with them, they started to talk to us
    They said: "Enough, these guys who burned themselves were psychopaths!"
    Of course, on all national media, whoever dies in protest is a psychopath.
    If they were psychopaths, why did they burn themselves at the Parliament building?
    I'm making this video to give you one simple message
    We want to go down to Tahrir Square on January 25th
    If we still have honor, and want to live in dignity on this land, we have to go down on January 25th
    We'll go down and demand our rights, our fundamental human rights
    I won't even talk about any political rights...
    We just want our human rights and nothing else.
    This entire government is corrupt - a corrupt president and a corrupt security force
    These self-immolators were not afraid of death but were afraid of security forces!
    Can you imagine that? Are you also like that?
    Are you going to kill yourselves too? Or are you completely clueless?
    I'm going down on January 25th, and from now till then, I'm going to distribute fliers in the street everyday
    I will not set myself on fire! If the security forces want to set me on fire, let them come and do it!
    If you think yourself a man, come with me on January 25th
    Whoever says women shouldn't go to protests because they will get beaten
    Let him have some honor and manhood and come with me on January 25th
    Whoever says its not worth it because there will be only a handful of people
    I want to tell him, you are the reason behind this
    And you are a traitor, just like the president or any security cop who beats us in the streets
    Your presence with us will make a difference, a big difference!
    Talk to your neighbors, your colleagues, friends and family and tell them to come
    They don't have to come to Tahrir square
    Just go down anywhere and say it, that we are free human beings
    Sitting at home and just following us on news or Facebook leads to our humiliation
    Leads to my own humiliation!
    If you have honor and dignity as a man, come
    Come and protect me, and other girls in the protest
    If you stay home, then you deserve all that's being done to you
    And you will be guilty, before your nation and your people
    And you'll be responsible for what happens to us on the street while you sit at home.
    Go down to the street, send SMS's. Post it on the 'net. Make people aware.
    You know your own social circle, your building, your family, your friends, tell them to come with us
    Bring 5 people or 10 to Tahrir square
    And talk to people and tell them, this is enough.
    Instead of setting ourselves on fire, let us do something positive
    It will make a difference, a big difference.
    Never say there's no hope! Hope disappears only when you say there's no hope.
    So long as you come down with us, there will be hope
    God says that He "will not change the conditions of a people until they change what is in themselves" Quran 13:11.
    Don't think you can be safe any more!
    None of us are!
    Come down with us, and demand your rights, my rights, your family's rights.
    I am going down on January 25th, and I will say "No" to corruption. "No" to this regime!

  • ||

    January 25? You had better get a move on, girl! You are almost a month late! (It's not mine, I swear.)

  • B||

    I'm not terribly surprised that the protests have been in the freer countries of the Middle East. Freer countries are more willing to tolerate protests. That doesn't mean that they are bad or have failed - it means the protests have succeeded where protests CAN succeed - just as the seed that falls into a crack can become a tree that tears a rock apart can only do that where a crack exists for it to take root.

    Also, while social media has been given too much importance for its ability to get a crowd together, it has not received enough attention for the way it has connected communities around the world. I have Facebook friends on 7 continents - and we can keep up on events in real time, and share perspectives and knowledge from around the world. Now THAT is powerful.

  • Mr. Mark||

    I watched The Killing Fields the other day. That was a revolution, too.

  • Moldering Billah||

    I was wondering if Dhimmi Carter was still a close pal of Qaddafi.

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